Paul Rouse steps back into the past to visit the spectacular medieval fair in Obidos, just an hour north of Lisbon.
Obidos might be one of Portugal’s best-preserved medieval towns, but it is no museum piece. All year round, the winding cobbled streets, glorious churches and towering 12th century castle help draw a steady influx of visitors who are gradually discovering that not every picturesque romantic hilltop idyll has to be in Tuscany.
It is probably at its best - and busiest - during July when it hosts its annual medieval fair. The event takes over the whole town, with parades, music, dancing, jugglers, jousting, fire eaters, fortune tellers, street theatre and live cooking: a unique and authentic experience with, thankfully, none of the tat and tackiness you might expect if it was done elsewhere.
And that is a large part of the charm of Obidos. With no modern buildings and no cars allowed, it has managed to retain its identity without turning itself into a theme park, and the fair complements the town superbly, rather than seeming like a modern-day anachronism or a staged marketing gimmick.
At the risk of sounding fanciful, the Obidos medieval fair really is like stepping back in time: everybody, from stall holders to entertainers, and from local shopkeepers to artisans, dresses for the part, with visitors encouraged to follow suit. The result is a medieval fashion show of fur, wool, leather, tunics, cloaks, head-dresses, caps and veils, worn by a cast of characters as diverse as you would expect to find in any genuine medieval scene: knights and nobles, peasants and paupers, tarot readers and tinkers, wives and wenches.
Turn any corner and you will come across a slice of life as it might have been back in the days when Obidos first rose to prominence as the customary bridal gift of the kings of Portugal: market traders and street vendors bawling out their wares, blacksmiths sweating over white-hot anvils, jesters performing, minstrels singing, musicians playing, and the air filled with the delicious aromas of herbs and spices, of fresh bread baking, pigs roasting on spits, and sausages and steaks sizzling on hot coals.
There is also more than a passing nod to some of the harsher realities of medieval life, although you know that the “beggars”, “lepers” and even the “ladies of easy virtue” who jokingly proposition you are only actors playing a role.
The fair is, in truth, a real family event, with everybody joining in the fun. One of the highlights - and best photo opportunities - is the daily parade from the castle down along the main street, led by knights on horseback followed by all manner of medieval figures, from priests and princesses to troubadours, drummers, pipe players, dancing girls and a splendid flock of hawks and owls, haughtily observing the proceedings from the leather-clad arms of their bearers. Visitors jostle for the best positions at street level to watch the parade go by, snapping away frantically, but for a bird’s eye view of your own, grab a seat at one of the first-floor terrace cafes and watch in comfort from your personal eyrie.
Elsewhere there are a host of other events and activities to amuse and entertain the crowds, from mock fights and palm readings to pantomimes and craft stalls. If the kids misbehave you can threaten to put them in the stocks, whilst those partial to gallows humour might climb up to see the hangman’s noose at close quarters. There is also the whole of Obidos to explore, from the brightly painted shops and houses with their flower-laden window boxes to the dozens of bars, hotels and restaurants serving everything from traditional Portuguese dishes such as caldeirada and feijoada to Arabic tea and ginja, the famous local liquor made from Morello cherries. A delight at any time of the year, the town really comes to life during this fortnight of delightful summer madness.
OBIDOS FACT FILE
EAT: Alcaide, Petrarum Domus, Patio do Libador, Ibn Errik Rex
SLEEP: Pousada do Castelo, Hotel Real de Obidos, Estalagem do Convento, Estalagem Casa das Senhoras Rainhas, Albergaria Josefa d´Obidos, Albergaria Rainha Santa Isabel
SHOP: Loja dos Arcos (ceramics), Loja do Vinho (wine), Loja do Oeste (art)